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Becoming Best of the Best

The Making of a Champion Show Dog

It’s show biz like no other when the elite of dogdom gather at the country’s most prestigious conformation competitions. As the very best of their breeds, those who breathe the rarefied air of conformation dog shows have earned their way show by show and point by point. 

In conformation events, purebred dogs compete against each other based on their breed’s ideal standard of physical attributes, including appearance, body structure, and movement and, of course, charm. Each dog is judged on the parameters of the idealized version of its breed.

Hundreds of dog shows are held every year in the U.S. The three top shows are the National Dog Show, sponsored by Purina and the most watched; the Westminster Kennel Club All Breed Dog Show, the oldest and considered the most prestigious; and the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, one of the most competitive.

In the world of conformation competition, these shows are the Super Bowls for canophiles and the canine equivalents of the Academy Awards. So imagine the odds of two stars —an Old English Sheep Dog and an elegant Ibizan Hound—coming from Colorado Springs.

To stand out, attitude is everything. A good show dog must be a happy dog, and one who loves to be in the show ring. When Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect, an Old English Sheep Dog better known as Swagger, not only won the best of breed but also the first-ever Reserve Best in Show at Westminster in 2013, the roar from the crowd was deafening. Each time the exuberant mass of fur appeared, the response was the same.

Owned, bred and handled by Colton Johnson of Colorado Springs, Swagger achieved the honor at only 20 months old, shown only four times and without yet having won a championship. Lucky for him, it was the first year the prestigious event allowed novice dogs—those without championship status—and Swagger made the most of it. He continued to rack up wins, including the Best of Breed at the Old English Sheepdog Club of America National Specialty Show.

Johnson, whose parents Doug and Michaelanne own Woodmen and Sunrise Kennels in Colorado Springs and were named the 2006 American Kennel Club’s Breeders of the Year, has big plans for his shaggy star. He would like Swagger to break the Best in Show breed record and become the number one dog in the country. To do this, they have embarked on a year-long, full-blown campaign across the U.S.

Getting there may be half the fun, but it requires an enormous time and financial commitment in an accentric and fascinating world of breeders, owners, judges, backers and, well…dogs. Who can forget the movie “Best in Show?”

Owners/breeders who want to show their dogs must first register them with the AKC. What’s in a name? A lot. To the uninitiated, these names can seem bizarre, but they tell a lot about the dog and must follow strict AKC guidelines. They must include the kennel name of the breeder, a reference to the parents’ names, and a theme.

Newbie show pups get their start in specialty dog shows that focus on their particular breed. After advancing up the specialty ladder, they are ready for group shows, where best of breeds compete against each other. Next are the top all-breed shows like Westminster and Eukanuba, where the goal and the dream are to become one of the final seven for Best in Show.

To be designated a champion, it’s all about the point system and it’s complicated. A dog must earn at least 15 points from three different judges, and at least two major wins from different judges in which the dog earns 3, 4 or 5 points depending on the number of dogs defeated. The dog can then add the prefix “Ch.” to his registered name.

For Denny Nester, our City Auditor, it was happenstance that he came to own a champion show dog. In 2009, Nester offered to take care of a friend’s pedigreed Ibizan Hound while she recovered from surgery. As a thank you to his family, she arranged for her dog to be used by a breeder in Delaware. She received the the pick of the litter which she gave to Nester. The caveat was that he would show the puppy.

And so began a life-changing odyssey for someone who had never been to a dog show. He and the puppy, called O.P. and registered as Arbeca’s Opus for Danzante, learned the ropes together. In 2010, at six months old, O.P. was entered in the Buckhorn Valley Kennel Club Dog Show in Loveland. The pup won Best of Winners and earned his first point toward his championship. It was the beginning of a steady rise in the show circuit that now includes O.P.’s daughter, Dori.

For the past two years, O.P. won Best of Breed at Eukanuba, and an Award of Merit in Breed Competition this year at Westminster. The elegant and graceful sighthound has not only achieved Grand Champion status, but after earning 200 points, he is now a Silver Grand Champion, on his way to gold and platinum.

It’s exhausting work but worth it for those who love showmanship and dogs who thrive in it. But is there life outside the show ring? “My dogs are normal dogs between shows,” says Nester. “They cuddle up to me in the evening while we watch TV, or we take a walk around the block. Mostly, they like running around the backyard chasing squirrels.”

It’s a dog’s life after all.